Adi Wimmer responds to Kerryn Goldsworthy

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Kerryn Goldsworthy’s article “Needing his Signature” was a pleasure to read. In anecdotal form (and this is not a dismissive remark) she identifies some of the issues which we men need to understand within the contexts of sexual harrassment and the disadvantaging of women students. (I am quite prepared to admit that twenty years ago, when I started my university career, I was blissfully unaware of how wrong and macho my behaviour frequently was. It has not always been easy to adapt and to learn.)

Kerryn’s article is also interesting for me — an outsider, working in an Austrian university — since it helps me to understand certain aspects of academic culture in Australia. I am referring to the enormous power that supervisors seem to have over the careers of their PhD students, a power which we simply do not have. Here, anyone who takes a first degree is entitled to start a PhD course and thesis, and is not hamstrung by progress reports and the like.

Choosing the subject for the thesis is entirely up to the student. The thesis is read and evaluated by two professors and if rejected, there is a possibility to appeal. In other words, no PhD candidate ever “needs the signature” of a supervisor, unless it is for an application to go overseas or for some other form of funding. Even then, s/he can find testimonial providers of her/his own choice.

My response is also mostly anecdotal. For instance, when Kerryn describes the scene in which a male colleague told a vile joke, she interprets this as a type of test. Her assumption is that all men in that group liked the joke and all eyes were on her for what response she would produce. This is a false premise — not all men are alike.

It’s is a pity that she does not tell the joke in question. Nor do we learn whether anyone in that group protested. Personally, I like jokes — a joke is a short story and thus has an a-prior literary dimension. And I particularly like jokes in which the ludic function of language comes to the fore.

Any philologist should enjoy the possibilities that language possesses to create ambiguities and double meanings. But if a joke is purely sexist I — a man and joke lover — always protest. Precisely because joke-telling needs to be preserved, and particularly when such a joke is told in the company of women. And let me tell you: it is a quite severe punishment for a joke-teller if he is told that the joke was in bad taste. Protesting against a sexist joke is the verbal equivalent of a slap in his face.

More than ten years ago the OZ cultural attachée in Vienna told me a sexist joke that made me blanch. But that’s a different story. It could well be that Australia’s cultural history (the mythical concept of mateship, in other words) is responsible for a particularly mysoginist society.

Kerryn also makes the point that women professors get drafted on far too many committees. Maybe so, but she makes out that this is a sinister male plot. She does not allow for the possibility that the male establishment genuinely wants women in power-sharing committees. And anyway, doesn’t Kerryn’s complaint beg the question: What is the alternative? That women should not be on committees? Don’t we have a clear case of “Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t” here?

What I reject even more is her notion that men are constantly on the lookout for a woman’s failure, rubbing their hand in glee if she does not rise to the general expectation! Have we really got so far in the “gender war” that women academics suspect that they are constantly being watched by their male colleagues regarding professional behaviour? Isn’t that a tad paranoid?

Of course I don’t possess insider knowledge of Oz tertiary institutions, but such an insinutaion seems far-fetched. Men are usually more likely to be filled with schadenfreude when a male colleague does not deliver. Males are rivals, women primarily potential partners and collaborators. The success of a female colleague is thus far less threatening to me than that of my buddy in the same institution.

Three years ago, a change in our federal laws created three new powerful positions for each university; “Vize-Rektor” was the name for these, which came with handsome salary increases (close to AUD 20.000 per annum by today’s echange rate). At my uni it was agreed that if a woman came forward to claim one of these positions she would not be opposed in the Senate election. So we had a female “Vizerektor” for the budget portfolio, the single most powerful position after that of the Rektor. Unfortunately, soon after she was offered a professorship at a Swiss university, which she could not refuse. So before leaving she went around trying to recruit another woman in our university who would step into her position. To her and my dismay not a single woman was willing to take on that job.

Second anecdote. A few years ago the position of a junior lecturer was to be filled at the history department, and I was a member of the appointments committee. The department itself had voted 7:3 in favour of a young woman, on the basis of her expertise and publications in the field of working-class culture and history. The vote was not, alas binding. The most senior professor at the department wanted to fill the position with his own PhD candidate, who had done his research in choral, folk-costume and folk-art societies. (I kid you not.) He managed to get all the professors on the committee on his side. The committee was made up of twelve professors, six non-tenured assistant professors (of whom I was one), six students and one representative of the non-academic staff. A total of 25.

The final vote was 13:12 for the male candidate. But what was so remarkable was that the ONE woman professor who could have decided the issue did not participate in the debate and left the meeting before the vote was taken, handing her vote to a male colleague. (OK I hear you reply, typical Margaret Thatcher case, wanted to be one of the boys. Wrong — she had kept and continues to keep a high profile as the champion of women’s causes.) And of the six student representatives, there was again ONE woman — and she vigorously campaigned for the male candidate (both belonged to the conservative student caucus), while the five male student reps argued and voted for the woman candidate. So if someone tells me about males keeping women out of academic positions, I respond with Homeric laughter.

The intensity of various debates in Australia continues to amaze me. In a short essay that was recently published in Southerly I have argued that Australia has a history of intensely planning the future — because there is not much of a past, at least in comparison with Europe. Australians tend to view their own society as a fairly open, uninhibited one, whereas I tend to see it as over-protective, illiberal, and given to almost fanatic regulations of every itty bitty social issue.

The First Stone and The Hand that Signed The Paper controversies are good cases in points. Regarding the former (THTSTP having disappeared from public discourse), I am amazed how divisive that matter became and how fierce the attacks. Jenna Mead in her introduction to bodyjamming claims that her book is “without rancour”. Earlier on she calls Helen Garner a “one-time feminist”, her letter to the Ormond College Master “infamous” and her career “stalled after the publication of her last novel Cosmo Cosmolino.”

And that is why I welcome articles of the kind that Kerryn Goldsworthy wrote for AHR.

Adi Wimmer
Department of English
University of Klagenfurt

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